Are mobile solutions overhyped?
Aubergine farmer Souleye Ndoye consults, 10 November 2005, his cell phone in his field to check the latest prices for his produce in different Senegalese markets. (Getty Images)
February 7th, 2012
01:35 PM ET

Are mobile solutions overhyped?

Editor’s Note: Contributors to this post will be part of a panel on the topic taking place on Thursday, February 9th in Washington, D.C. Sign up for the event here. This post is part of the Global Innovation Showcase created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

There are now over 5 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide, according to the International Telecommunications Union, with global mobile penetration at 87 percent. In the developing world, where landlines are especially scarce in rural areas, mobiles have been used for governance, banking, agriculture, education, health, commerce, reporting news, political participation, and reducing corruption.

But the ubiquity of the mobile phone - and its application to a diverse and growing set of development goals - doesn’t guarantee economic or social progress.

Are mobiles just another high-tech solution to what are essentially systemic and deeply rooted problems? Are mobile solutions for combating global poverty overhyped?

Kentaro Toyama, (@Kentarotoyama), Researcher at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley

Yes, mobile solutions are overhyped. At the moment, there is tremendous excitement around using mobile phones to address illness, ignorance, oppression, and other socio-economic challenges of the developing world. Within a decade, though, I expect that we’ll look back and see mobile development just as we view 1960s attempts to tackle the same problems with television – the technology has great potential, but overall it’s just an unproductive diversion.

Cheerleaders for mobile development point out that there are nearly six billion active mobile accounts in the world, and that mobile phones are increasingly used by the remotest rural villagers. It’s hard, indeed, to overhype the business success or the consumer appeal of mobile phones.

Market penetration, however, is not the same as meaningful impact.

Technology amplifies human intent and capacity, but technology by itself doesn’t fix challenges of intent or capacity. What’s overhyped is a belief that mobile-centric programs are a cost-effective means to combat disease, improve education, or alleviate poverty, as if mobile or not were the essential question. What’s overhyped is technological innovation as a primary solution to complex social problems, at the expense of tested-and-true interventions that nurture people and institutions.

Here’s an analogy: Imagine that you were chair of the board of a failing organization. Which of the following actions would most help turn it around?

1. Replace the chief executive with someone smarter and wiser.

2. Consult with clients, and address organizational blind spots.

3. Provide relevant, high-quality training for the employees.

4. Buy every employee a fancy smartphone with specially designed productivity software.

I’ve asked this question of many audiences, and everyone always laughs at (d). Yet, (d) in one form or another is the rationale behind most mobile development.

The real question is one of priority: Why allocate resources for technology-centric projects, when they could be better spent on people-centric ones? To paraphrase an old adage (with a deep apology to poets), “If you give a person a turbo-charged, heat-seeking, robotic fishing pole, they might eat until the technology becomes obsolete, which in our age is a couple of years at best; if, however, you teach them how to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime.”

Maura O’Neill, (@MauraAtUSAID), Chief Innovation Officer at USAID

It depends. If you are looking for instant improvements in health, education or income shortly after a mom in a remote village or a young person in an urban slum purchases a cell phone then you will be shaking your head. Five billion cell phones in and of themselves are not going to produce development.  On the other hand if you look at what occurred in Internet retail or music downloads you might predict we are within spitting distance of that development inflection curve.

After Amazon went public, raised an additional billion dollars in debt and was still mounting losses, many people were dismissing it - pointing to its single digit share of the book market.  It will never be more than a bit player, many thought.  Not sustainable. No scale.

A market rarely looks robust from the outset.  Until, of course, it does and it is too late for competitors.

However, one company usually doesn’t get it right at first. It is an iterative process. There was Napster, then Kaaza and then Apple launched a business model that finally was a hit for the industry and consumers. Legitimate downloads skyrocketed. There was Friendster and MySpace, both market leaders, before Facebook built a new mousetrap.

We are in that experimentation phase just before the inflection point in the field of mobiles for development. Thousands of apps, few with massive scale.  Lots of people are chasing that dream. Many will end up failing while the Amazons and the Facebooks of development will emerge faster than people think.

The first signs that mobiles will be a game changer in development are appearing. 15 million Kenyans or 70% of the country’s adult population now have mobile money wallets nestled in their back pockets – a phenomenon that occurred in just the last four years. It is already driving development outcome improvements in savings and internal remittances.

It hasn’t gone viral globally. At least not yet. But when VISA invests in companies like Fundamo, and is putting it global distribution assets behind game changing mobile applications, we know true development is not far behind.  Serious mobile money launches or re-launches based on the lessons learned are occurring in dozens of poor countries. Vodafone, Google and other players are offering digital wallets. Financial inclusion will soon be within reach of millions.

There will be development hurdles mobiles will struggle to solve. Twitter may have accelerated the Arab Spring but tackling development problems will remain complex.  The next decade will be transformational in development. Mobiles will be a big part of the story.

Katrin Verclas, @KatrinskayaCo-Founder and Editor of MobileActive

Yes and no. There is no doubt that mobile technology has revolutionized communications worldwide, with over six billion active subscriptions, according to the GSMA, and with Africa and India experiencing growth in mobile accessibility and availability that is unprecedented.

Mobile phones have been instrumental in allowing people to strengthen their social networks and safety nets in case of financial or medical emergencies. Phones have ‘normalized’ information disparity in markets, allowing farmers, for instance, access to information about commodity prices to negotiate better prices for their products. Information available via mobiles can streamline supply chains for small shopkeepers.

Phones are increasingly used for delivery of basic health care services, such as more accurate and speedy transmittance of patient information, streamlining of drug supply chains, vaccination outreach, and sexual health information.

Mobile money has seen particularly striking success in reaching the unbanked. A recent study looked at 18 branchless banking providers and found that they’d brought on average 1.39 million people into the formal financial system for the first time.

Lastly, mobile phones have the potential to lessen income and power inequalities between men and women. One 2008 study in South Africa notes that mobile phones can have a distinctly positive economic effect on female users. When network coverage was extended to a new locality, employment increased by 15 percent, with “most of this effect…due to increased employment by women.”

Yet mobile technology is no silver bullet. As the Financial Times pointed out not too long ago, in many Africa countries there is “an acute shortage of resources and trained staff means that more than 50% of the region’s population is estimated to lack access to modern health care facilities."  Mobile technology may serve as an effective communications medium for local community health workers, but it will not replace the lack of investment, and the lack of resources and trained medical staff.

While mobiles are great for accessing information about commodity prices, similarly, they will not replace investments into roads and transportation infrastructure that would allow goods to actually get to market efficiently and speedily.

Lastly, while the data on mobiles and women is conflicting, there is with growing evidence of a bottom-of-the-pyramid mobile divide. In the poorest areas, cell phones are especially scarcer, and cost and literacy impose greater barriers to poorer women, who are more likely to be illiterate than men. It is often these poorest, most rural women who could most use information about market prices, personal safety, and female health care who are also least able to afford mobile phones and take advantage of its opportunities.

Eric Tyler (@Erict19), Program Associate at the New America Foundation

Yes, if you are predicting that mobile technology will mean the end of the digital divide and that a mobile phone in every hand will solve all problems. No, if you are saying that utilizing mobile phones already in the hands of nearly 6 billion people is profoundly better than dropping tablet computers out of helicopters.

Mobile phones are leading the developing world into the information economy and digital age. Already, we’ve seen the potential of the devices to transform an entire industry, as mobile money did in Kenya. And for a large portion of the developing world’s next generation, it will be through mobile phones that Internet connectivity is gained.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and throw mobile phones at every problem we see. The sustainability and effectiveness of mobile solutions will be closely tied to the human reality and context that surrounds these devices. And important questions still need to be asked around replicability and costs. For example, why has mobile money not yet taken hold outside of Kenya? And how can prices come down for those who cannot afford mobile phones?

A promising sign of mobiles phones’ potential are early randomized evaluations of projects showing a range of positive impacts. One such study of a mobile money transfer project in a drought prone village in Niger showed a huge reduction in distribution costs and greater diversity in crop allocation, purchasing decisions, and diet for mobile transfer beneficiaries.

“Mobile development” is still in its infancy. After all, the first call was made from a mobile less than forty years ago. The inventor Martin Cooper picked up the two and half pound handheld and dialed his rival company’s head researcher to gloat. Martin couldn’t have envisioned the implications of his breakthrough for helping the world’s poorest, and the picture is still coming into focus today. What is already clear is that this is just the beginning, and as mobile phones get smarter, cheaper, and more widespread, they will continue to play an integral role in adapting international development to the digital age.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the individual authors.

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Topics: Development • Innovation • Technology • Trends

soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Portland tony

    Well the cell phone may not be a panacea for all ills, but it certainly has helped the itinerant farmers in remote locations in Africa and elsewhere find markets for their produce. Instead of waiting days to hear from buyers, they can instantly find a buyer ...agree on price ...and schedule deliveries. Previously..they just brought their goods to town and hoped for the best price
    knowing they had to sell their foodstuff before it spoiled.

    February 8, 2012 at 9:30 am | Reply

    1. ذكرت في الحلقة السابقة ( السادسة ) اطمئناني لإخواني المترجمين العاملين في القواعد العسكرية الأمريكية الذين اتصلوا بي ليعنوا في رسائلهم توبتهم الى الله والوطن والشعب والذين تم تسميتهم بالأرقام بدلا من أسمائهم الحقيقية حرصا على أمنهم وحياتهم من قوات الاحتلال الأمريكي , وعاهدتهم بأنني سأقوم بتحويل أسمائهم والمؤشرة إزاء كل منهم أرقامهم السرية الى الجهات الخاصة المتعاونة مع المقاومة العراقية وهم كل من :

    أ. المترجم التائب رقم ( 10) محافظة نينوى .

    ب. المترجم التائب رقم ( 15 ) محافظة بابل .

    ج‌. المترجم التائب رقم ( 20 ) محافظة التأميم .

    د. المترجم التائب رقم ( 50 ) محافظة بغداد .

    هـ. المترجمة التائبة رقم ( 75 ) محافظة بغداد .

    و. المترجمة التائبة رقم ( 100 ) محافظة بغداد .

    ز. المترجم التائب رقم ( 125 ) محافظة صلاح الدين .

    2. أرسل لي المترجم رقم ( 50 ) من محافظة بغداد معلومات خطيرة عن عملاء مزدوجين للقوات الأمريكية والإيرانية وموثقة بالوثائق والصور التي تثبت ذلك وهم :

    أ. العميل ( حسن سعيد حسن الكليدار ) مهنته ضابط شرطة متقاعد – محكوم سابق في زمن النظام السابق بتهمة مخلة بالشرف ( الرشوة والاختلاس ) لمدة سنين في سجن أبو غريب أثناء حكم النظام السابق .

    عمله الحالي – عميل مزدوج للاستخبارات الأمريكية والإيرانية .ويكلف الى الآن بمهمات استخباراتي داخل بغداد وخارجها وخارج العراق

    عنوانه : يسكن بغداد – الجهاد حي الأطباء

    ب. العميل ( أمرو ألقيس حسن سعيد الكليدار ) قضى حياته في السرقة والنصب والاحتيال – هارب من الخدمة العسكرية أيام النظام السابق – خدم كجندي في الجيش الأمريكي في فرقة الخيالة الثالثة – كان من ضمن الفرقة القتالية التي اقتحمت الفلوجة – أنتسب الى الجيش الأمريكي عام 2003 والى الآن .

    يعمل حاليا ضمن الاستخبارات الأمريكية في خدمة الجيش الأمريكي – عميل مزدوج للاستخبارات الأمريكية والإيرانية – ويكلف الى الآن بمهمات استخباراتية وقتالية داخل بغداد وخارجها وخارج العراق .

    – لديه ورشة تبريد لتغطية أعماله الإجرامية

    -عنوانه : يسكن بغداد – الجهاد حي الأطباء.

    ج. العميل ( مروان حسن سعيد حسن الكليدار ) خدم مترجم لقوات الاحتلال الأمريكي – أنتسب عن طريق أبوه ( حسن سعيد حسن الكليدار ) الى الاستخبارات الأمريكية عام 2004 – والآن منتسب الى الاستخبارات الأمريكية

    – يسكن بغداد – الجهاد حي الأطباء .

    د. صديق عائلة حسن سعيد حسن الكليدار العميل المزدوج ( مازن التميمي ) يسكن مدينة السماوة ويعمل معهم ويرافقه في كل شي وهو احد أعضاء المجلس الأعلى للثورة الإسلامية (فيلق بدر)

    د. صهر امرؤ ألقيس أي زوج بنت حسن سعيد واسمه العميل ( إبراهيم حربي إبراهيم القيسي ) وهو نائب ضابط سابق في الجيش العراقي ويعمل الآن مع القوات الأمريكية وقد نسبته القوات الأمريكية لحماية امن السفارة الألمانية وبعدها عمل في المنطقة الخضراء وكان يركب سيارة كولف حمراء .

    عنوانه : منطقة المنصور حاليا .

    3. إليكم الوثائق الموثقة بالصور أدناه للعملاء الجواسيس أعلاه ومعهم الكثير من العملاء العراقيين الذين باعوا دينهم وشرفهم للمحتل الكافر الأجنبي من الضباط والجنود الذين خدموا الاحتلال الأمريكي راجيا من أبناء العراق النشامى وفي حالة معرفة كل من يظهر في هذه الصور ان يزود المقاومة العراقية بأسمائهم ومناطق سكناهم او تزويد الشبكات والمواقع التي ستنشر هذه الاعترافات بأسمائهم وعناوين سكناهم وأية معلومات أخرى يعرفونها عنهم , والوثائق هي :

    • اسمه ( أمرو ألقيس حسن سعيد الكليدار ) قضى حياته في السرقة والنصب والاحتيال – هارب من الخدمة العسكرية أيام النظام السابق .

    • خدم كجندي في الجيش الأمريكي في فرقة الخيالة الثالثة

    • كان من ضمن الفرقة القتالية التي اقتحمت الفلوجة

    • أنتسب الى الجيش الأمريكي عام 2003.

    • يعمل حاليا ضمن الاستخبارات الأمريكية في خدمة الجيش الأمريكي .

    • عميل مزدوج للاستخبارات الأمريكية والإيرانية – ويكلف الآن بمهمات استخباراتية وقتالية داخل بغداد وخارجها وخارج العراق .

    • لديه ورشة تبريد في منطقة المنصور لتغطية أعماله الإجرامية .

    • يسكن بغداد – الجهاد حي الأطباء.

    والعميل الجاسوس : امرؤ ألقيس حسن سعيد حسن الكليدار : هو من مدينة سامراء ومن عائلة الكليدار التي تسكن المدينة وهي عائلة مشهورة بالالتزام الديني والتقيد بالعادات والتقاليد , نشأت هذا العميل في بغداد , والده شرطي واسمه حسن وهو معروف بسقوطه الأخلاقي وانحرافه وقد حكم عليه سابقا بالسجن (10)سنوات بتهمة الاغتصاب والرشوة وطرد من الخدمة .

    February 8, 2012 at 10:07 am | Reply
  3. Shahroz

    No. But I do agree that many of the organizations or project behind such innovation are so fixated with the technology that they forget the big picture (and in that sense I guess it is over hyped). However there are lot many others who use the technology as a means to an end. What Maura and Katrin tell you is not only happening in Africa but in other parts of the world. In our country Bangladesh, telecom operators have come out with innovative services like helplines and information centers (there are arouind 500 centers across the country) targeting poor farmers and giving them important agriculture information and other services. Studies shows that more than half a million farmers have accessed and benefited from such service. In the end Mobile technology is just a tool that is there to be used and if you are innovative enough you can find ways of using that to achieve greater development goals

    February 8, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Reply
  4. Charles Dhewa

    I have just read the article and found it interesting. However, it lacks balance because there is no perspective from those whose lives have been changed by mobile technology. My mother has just phoned to tell me she reached her rural home (360 km from Harare) safely yesterday. If she hadn't phoned I would still be worrying that maybe something happened to her. Can you imagine how I feel now!

    All the people in this article need to revisit their definition of 'Development'. The power of technology, especially with mobile technology is in how it mysteriously connects with people's self-esteem and ambition levels. I have not conducted any study but I can tell you that in rural Zimbabwe you can easily see that people with mobile phones are more confident, have a certain spring in their step, are more self-aware and ready to seize opportunities. Such people are ready to develop themselves. The effect of mobile technology is more at an emotional and psychological level. That's where development should start not by providing infrastructure. A lot of infrastructure provided by donors and NGOs in developing countries is lying ideal because intended beneficiaries have no attachment with such form of 'development.'


    Charles Dhewa

    February 9, 2012 at 9:36 am | Reply
  5. Dan

    Just a comment on an often-used proverb found in this article. "....if, however, you teach them how to fish, they’ll eat for a lifetime.” What that proverb promotes is inherently limiting. Fishing with the same tactics for a lifetime can decimate the fish population in a river, lake or ocean, risking its long-term viability as a food source. A better proverb would be: "teach a man to learn, and he can feed generations". The ever-learning man can evolve tactics as needed to pre-emptively adapt to changing conditions. Knowledge is fleeting. Learning keeps the knowledge base fresh, allowing the fish population to thrive long into the future.

    February 12, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
  6. Vijay

    This is really a good topic bsuacee on one hand we should understand that these mobile devices did cause some negative problems on campus, on the other hand that educators and teachers really do not know how to deal with this in some areas. I think let the educators and teachers work together with students and help them with the usage of these devices is a good idea. But I am concerning another problem: do all the teachers or educators know how to help students to use these new devices?I mean, as we all know that kids are so called digital natives which means they are born in technology environment and also means have higher level in technology than the educators who are so-called digital immigrants. So if the educators do not know how to use these devices or they are not good at these new technologies, how can they HELP? Even the educators and teachers try their hard we still cannot guarantee that all of them can keep up with these new generations. That is also the reason that why some schools use the extremely way to deal with this: banning. The thing is BANNING is wrong, then where is the right way?In my opinion, I suggest the school districts should response for this and they have the abilities to do this. First, they can do some researches in their own districts and find out what are the real problems, what kinds of devices appearing and how they are distractive from study. Second, they can invite professionals to help teachers to solve these kinds of problems happening their districts. This will be better for letting teachers just go online to learn by themselves. I do not think this is an individual problem in a certain number of schools. So educators should work together to lead students for proper usage is a better way than just banning.

    March 14, 2012 at 1:44 am | Reply
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